There is only one Ma-ai between two opponents and in this sense it is a distance. It is the range where you can still escape but where your presence will still influence the behaviour of your opponent. When you are at the "inside edge of the Ma-ai you will have a prickly feeling that you are almost, but not quite, too close. Inside the Ma-ai is danger: you will most likely be hitting your opponent, being hit by them, or stifling the attacks by grappling. At the outside edge of the Ma-ai your opponent will still be poised with awareness, ready to engage. Moving beyond that distance will cause your influence on your opponent to diminish. The opponent may relax and re-stage or they may try to approach again.
Tempo and measure in western martial arts are two separated concepts but they work together and they include more than just timing and distancing. Tempo suggests a relationship between the rhythm of the opponent and your own rhythms. You can move on the beat or on a half or quarter beat. The measure also implies a relationship. You can "Find the Measure" of your opponent. The measure is the place where your weapon will be effective.
George Silver talked about finding the "True Place". The True Place is the position where you can strike your opponent without them striking you. Finding the true place implies a dynamic relationship between you and your opponent. Silver mentions timing choices to find the True Place. You can enter within striking range by attacking First, Before, Just, and After. Each of these timings provides a way to get to the True Place. All of this is to achieve the "True Fight". The True Fight is the fight where you escape unscathed.
All of these concepts are valuable models describing the intricate play between timing and distancing. If you understand timing and distancing you will have a decided advantage over an opponent who does not. So much so that it almost does not matter what you hit your opponent with if you are a master of timing and distancing.
When Silver talked about the True Place he was talking about a position rather than a distance per se. The True Place is any position where you can strike with impunity. The True Place is momentary. No opponent will allow you to stand for long in such a position of advantage. So the True Place is fleeting and Silver admonishes us to fly in and then out again and to use our position to bait our opponent and to enter safely when we can.
"The Ma-ai requires advancing and retreating, separating and meeting." From the Bubishi.
He suggests that we use timing to enter and then adds that we can safely move into the true place by crossing swords as well. Crossing swords can also provide a true place because your sword acts as a fence to protect you when you are in an otherwise unwise place.
The True place is a function of distance but also positioning. It is also a function of the range of weapon ranges and where the target is that you are aiming at. Silver encourages us to aim at hands and arms because an outstretched arm is closer to your sword than your opponent's sword is to your head or body. To attack at a range where you can also be struck requires that you cross blades in order to protect yourself. To cross blades creates possibilities to bind and wind, parry and block. You can become very proficient in these skills. But things happen very fast when you are fencing outside of the true place. Furthermore you are subject to being overwhelmed by stronger opponents if you are the weaker, smaller one.
Silver used the soldier's weapon, the shorter arming sword instead of the rapier that was lauded by the Italian Maestros of his day. He even suggested optimum lengths for these swords, limiting them to allow their maneuverability when close to the opponent. But above all, he emphasized cutting what was available from a safe place. To not do this is to scoff at the deadliness of the sword.
Enter single stick. I like single stick for lots of reasons. It is historical. People practiced stick fighting, cane fighting, small sword, and sabre using single sticks. The single stick is basically just a stout sword length stick. It is inexpensive and relatively safe for beginners to use. The single stick is fast and therefore builds awareness and agility. The single stick is not really a sword and it does not act like one. It is too light, has no edge, and the weighting is all wrong. But the single stick is also a contemporary weapon of self defence as well as a historical practice weapon. I can teach the use of a single stick to my stepdaughter and her friends and they can use that skill to defend themselves if they need to.
Lately, I have been using single stick to teach about the True Fight and the True Place. Because considerations of timing and distancing are fundamental to all martial arts the lessons learned can be adapted to other ways of fighting.
One objection to using the single stick is the emphasis on striking the hands. Longsword competitions in particular do not often allow hand strikes and so, it is reasoned, the cross over from single stick is limited. But the sensation of managing timing and distance is fundamental to fighting and to martial arts. If you face an opponent empty handed you will still need to understand timing and distance. The specific distance of the Ma-ai is not a finite distance. It is based on a feeling and on the dynamics of the situation. Getting in and out of the Ma-ai feels the same regardless of the type of weapon that you or your opponent is using.
As for longsword, this weapon is about ranged fighting. Its primary function is to be swift and powerful that you use to attack from Largo, that is, from the Ma-ai. Close play occurs when you cross blades and you need the skills of close play to stay safe and to enter into grappling range. But staying in the red zone where you are both able to strike and duking it out is not a high form.
Silver's lessons are pertinent to the longsword. Don't get hit. Avoid getting hit by getting in and then getting out in such a way that your opponent can't hit you. Do this by using timing, positioning, and crossing blades when you need to and by changing the game by closing to grapple.
The question becomes, then, "Can I adapt the lessons of Silver gained from single stick to longsword and to sword work in general?" The answer is this: what you learn regarding timing and distancing is fundamental and applies to all weapons, even to spears. Even to projectile weapons. Even in large scale movements of troops. Seek to become proficient in timing and distance, apply these concepts in all of your fighting and you will see how it can transform your skills.